There have been vociferous demands to increase the public spending on education. But not much is heard about the bad quality in spending. In fact, even this lower than required spending could bring about a sea change in the system, if there was a will to check the deficit in governance, not in spending.

The annual status of education report (ASER) 2014 mirrored the pathetic situation of school education in India. As high as 75 per cent of third, 50 per cent of fifth and 25 per cent of eighth standard students were unable to read, let alone understand, the simple text of a lower level, second standard book. More than 75 per cent of third standard students could not do a two-digit subtraction; about the same proportion of fifth standard students could not do division; and a high 56 per cent of eighth standard students could not correctly solve problems involving the division of three digits by one digit. Similarly, 19.5 per cent of second standard students could not recognise the numbers up to 9 and about 75 per cent of fifth standard students could not read simple English sentences.

Low spending, low standards

These poor standards apart, students do not remain in school till the end. The UNDP’s (2012) data puts the mean years of schooling of those above 15 years in India at 4.4 years against Sri Lanka’s 9.3, China’s 7.5, Pakistan’s 4.9 and Bangladesh’s 4.8.

The low spending on education could be one reason for the state of affairs; educational spending has been low as a proportion to GDP and is much less than what is required and has been promised. The Kothari Commission (1966) expected educational spending to reach a level of 6 per cent of GDP by 1985-86. But it lingered between 3.1 and 3.8 per cent from 2001 to 2010.

Yet, what is being spent is not a pittance. According to data from the ministry of human resources development, the public expenditure on education, by the Centre and States, increased from ₹2.97 lakh crore in 2010-11 to ₹3.57 lakh crore in 2011-12; the Budget allocation for 2012-13 was ₹4.10 lakh crore. This expenditure as a proportion to GDP has increased by 632.81 per cent, from ₹64.46 crore (equal to 0.64 per cent of GDP in 1951-52) to ₹2.97 lakh crore (4.05 per cent of GDP in 2010-11).

Perhaps, because of this spending there has been an impressive performance in terms of providing school buildings, classrooms, textbooks and other facilities. Well over 95 per cent of children in the 6-14 years age-group are now enrolled.

Too many, too tough

The number of schools and teachers is not small. In all, there are 14,25,564 institutions in the country imparting school education, primary to senior secondary, according to the Centre’s Educational Statistics at a Glance-2014 . Of these, 7, 90,640 are primary schools.

There are altogether 82.68 lakh teachers in the country, 26.84 lakh in primary schools, 25.13 lakh in upper primary schools, 12.86 lakh in secondary schools, and 17.85 lakh in senior secondary schools. Teachers account for more than a quarter of organised sector employment in the country.

Unfortunately all this does not lead to a conducive environment in schools. Government data (2013-14) show 19.8 per cent students dropping out before completing fifth standard, 36.3 per cent before eighth standard, and 47.4 per cent before tenth standard. Quoting absolute numbers — “eight million children never having stepped inside a school and 80 million dropping out without completing basic schooling” — the United Nations Children’s Fund has described the situation as a national emergency.

There could be many reasons for this outside the school, but one reason within the school is truly appalling. Many teachers are found not only to be incompetent but cruel. ASER’s policy brief notes that the teachers were not following child friendly practices as evident in the data analysis of 850 hours of classroom observations. They were not smiling, laughing or joking with students.

A government publication from the women and child development ministry, Child Protection: A handbook for Teachers , says, “Many street and working children have pointed out corporal punishment at school as one of the reasons for running away from school and also from their families and homes”; “almost all schools inflict corporal punishments on students”; “in the name of discipline, children are known to have had their bones and teeth broken, their hair pulled out and forced into acts of humiliation”.

Inventive torture

Quoting a study, the publication lists as many 40 punishments teachers inflict on students, grouping them under three heads: physical (making children stand whole day in the sun and 11 other such kinds of torture); emotional (slapping by the opposite sex and 7 other such acts of humiliation); and negative reinforcement (locking the ‘guilty’ in a dark room and 19 similarly horrendous punishments). No wonder there are reports of teachers committing rape.

These acts are outright illegal. Article 39 (f) of the Constitution grants children the right to equal opportunities and facilities. Section 17 (1) of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 prohibits physical punishment or mental harassment; Section 7 (6) (b) enjoins the Centre to develop and enforce standards for training teachers. Section 8 (g) makes the appropriate governments responsible for ensuring quality elementary education.

So, a lot could be achieved if those charged with administering education honour the laws. Teachers could be sensitised to be humane. This doesn’t need extra spending, only will. Not only the government, but good teachers, their unions and parents should work towards ending cruelty to students.

The writer is an independent researcher and consultant